Turkmenistan’s President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov says Sunday’s parliamentary election is a democratic milestone for his gas-rich nation, but critics say it merely slaps a veneer on what they call a repressive autocracy. The 56-year-old leader wields virtually unlimited power and is officially nicknamed Arkadag, or The Patron, in his mainly Muslim Central Asian state of 5.5 million which holds the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas. Keen to burnish his image abroad as he seeks new gas export routes to bypass former imperial master Russia, he stepped down as leader of the ruling Democratic Party in August and ordered the founding of a second political party, also loyal to him. “The December 15 election will herald a new stage of Turkmenistan’s democracy,” state television showed Berdymukhamedov telling a recent government meeting. He promised democratic reforms when he took office in 2007 after the death of his despotic predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov.